Germany: Memories of a Nation

November 9 2014

Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation, which completed its BBC Radio 4 run on the eve of 25 years of “Germany”, was as good as his A History of the World in 100 Objects (old post). This time, thirty 15-minute episodes, not quite chronological, “using objects, art, landmarks and literature”.

The test with a series like this is: would the other side wince if they heard it? I hope not in this case, even in the tenth programme. BBC descriptions are slightly edited here. Links to podcasts:

  1. The View from the Gate. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, begins his series examining 600 years of German history through objects with a reflection on Germany’s floating frontiers. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Neil visits the Brandenburg Gate.
  2. Divided Heaven. Neil MacGregor examines the story of the two Germanys, East and West, created in 1949, through objects including a wet suit used in an escape attempt from the East in 1987, which was later used as a training device by the Stasi, the East German secret police.
  3. Kafka, Kant and Lost Capitals. Neil MacGregor visits Kaliningrad, now in Russia, but formerly the German city Königsberg, home of the philosopher Kant, and also visits Prague, birthplace of writer Franz Kafka.
  4. Strasbourg – Floating City. Neil MacGregor visits Strasbourg, now in France, but once also a key city in German history, culture and precision engineering, as revealed by model of the astonishing cathedral clock.
  5. Fragments of Power. Neil MacGregor discovers how coins reveal the range and diversity of the Holy Roman Empire, with around 200 different currencies struck in the various territories of Germany.
  6. Luther and a Language for All Germans. Neil MacGregor focuses on the things which bind Germans together. He begins with the story of how Luther created the modern German language, by translating the Bible.
  7. Fairy Tales and Forests. Neil MacGregor examines how the tales of the Grimms and the art of Caspar David Friedrich re-established an identity for the German-speaking people, after their defeat by Napoleon.
  8. One Nation under Goethe. Neil MacGregor focuses on Goethe, arguing that he is the greatest of all German poets, and a unifying force, so that the Germans are one nation under Goethe.
  9. The Walhalla: Hall of Heroes. Neil MacGregor visits the Walhalla, one of the most idiosyncratic expressions of national identity in 19th century Europe, a temple to German-ness, modelled on the Parthenon.
  10. One People, Many Sausages. Neil MacGregor focuses on two great emblems of Germany’s national diet: beer and sausages. He finds out how regional specialities represent centuries of regional history.
  11. The Battle for Charlemagne. Neil MacGregor visits Aachen cathedral to examine the legacy of Charlemagne (c 747-c 814) – was he a great French ruler, or was he Charles the Great, a German? And what is the significance of a very fine replica of the Imperial Crown?
  12. Riemenschneider: Sculpting the Spirit. Neil MacGregor focuses on the religious sculptures of Tilman Riemenschneider (c 1460-1531), whose reputation as an artist has steadily risen. He is seen as a supreme sculptor, working in a peculiarly German medium, limewood, but articulating the sensibilities of a continent. And Neil MacGregor reveals why, as the war came to an end in 1945, the Nobel Prize-winning writer Thomas Mann identified Riemenschneider as a moral and political hero.
  13. Holbein and the Hansa. Neil MacGregor charts the rise and fall of the Hansa, or Hanseatic League, a great trading alliance of 90 cities, and the role of the painter Hans Holbein the Younger.
  14. Iron Nation. Neil MacGregor charts the role of iron in 19th century Prussia, an everyday metal whose uses included patriotic jewellery and the Iron Cross, a military decoration to honour all ranks.
  15. 1848: The People’s Flag and Karl Marx. Neil MacGregor reflects on the events of 1848, when black, red and gold became the colours of the flag for a united Germany, and Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto.
  16. Gutenberg: In the Beginning was the Printer. Neil MacGregor examines how Johannes Gutenberg’s inventions led to the birth of the book as we know it. For many, it is the moment at which the modern world began.
  17. Dürer: An Artist for All Germans. Neil MacGregor focuses on the work of Dürer (1471-1528), arguing that he is the defining artist of Germany, his image – and his self-image – known to all Germans.
  18. Porcelain: The White Gold of Saxony. Neil MacGregor focuses on how 18th century German chemists discovered the secrets of Chinese porcelain, known then as “white gold” – translucent, fine-glazed, and much-coveted.
  19. From Clock to Car: Masters of Metal. Neil MacGregor focuses on the long tradition of German metalwork, from finely-engineered clocks and scientific instruments to the Volkswagen Beetle.
  20. Bauhaus: Cradle of the Modern. Neil MacGregor focuses on the Bauhaus school of art and design, founded in 1919. Its emphasis on functional elegance is visible in our houses, furniture and typography today.
  21. Bismarck the Blacksmith. Neil MacGregor charts the career of Otto von Bismarck (1815-98), known as the Iron Chancellor: he argued that the great questions of the day should be decided by “iron and blood”.
  22. Käthe Kollwitz: Suffering Witness. Neil MacGregor focuses on the art of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), who expresses the loss and suffering of war, especially after the death of her younger son Peter at the front in 1914. Neil MacGregor argues that she is one of the greatest German artists. Like no other artist of the time, Kollwitz gave voice to the overwhelming sense of personal loss felt by ordinary Germans – the loss of a whole generation, the loss of political stability and of individual dignity.
  23. Notgeld. Neil MacGregor examines the emergency money – Notgeld – created during World War One and its aftermath. Small denomination coins began to disappear because their metal was worth more than their face value. People hoarded them or melted them down. Paper notes replaced coins, but as cities produced their own money, there was also currency made from porcelain, linen, silk, leather, wood, coal, cotton and playing cards. He also focuses on the crisis of hyperinflation in the early 1920s. At its peak, prices doubled every three and a half days, and in 1923 a 500 million mark note might buy a loaf of bread.
  24. Degenerate Art. Neil MacGregor examines how the Nazis attacked art they viewed as “entartet” – degenerate. He charts how Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, led a process designed to purify all German culture, including books, music, paintings and pottery. The programme focuses on a vase created by Grete Marks, with an evident debt to Chinese ceramics, and a loose brush-splashed glaze suggestive of modernist painting. Goebbels condemned this vase in his newspaper Der Angriff – The Attack. Grete Marks, who was Jewish and had trained at the Bauhaus, left Germany for England.
  25. Buchenwald. Neil MacGregor visits Buchenwald, one of the earliest and largest concentration camps.
  26. The Germans Expelled. Neil MacGregor focuses on a small hand-cart to tell the story of how more than 12 million Germans fled or were forced out of Central and Eastern Europe after 1945.
  27. Out of the Rubble. Neil MacGregor talks to a Trümmerfrau, a woman who cleared rubble from the Berlin streets in 1945, and focuses on a sculpture by Max Lachnit made from hundreds of pieces of rubble.
  28. The New German Jews. Germany today has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Western Europe. Neil MacGregor visits a synagogue in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, which was inaugurated in 1956.
  29. Barlach’s Angel. Neil MacGregor focuses on Ernst Barlach’s sculpture Hovering Angel, a unique war memorial, commissioned in 1926 to hang in the cathedral in Güstrow.
  30. Reichstag. Neil MacGregor ends his journey through 600 years of German history at the Reichstag, seat of the German Parliament.

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Goethe in der Campagna (1787), Wikipedia

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